Now that the 2012 campaign is over, we would do well to turn attention in earnest to the problems the United States faces, none of which are the slightest bit closer to resolution as a consequence of the election.1 Never has an American presidential race been so devoid of serious debate and genuine ideas as this one was, and this at a time when our need for real analysis and bold proposals is greater than ever. The country is in real trouble—not on account of some foreign adversary, but because our political system has become broadly dysfunctional. The recent election season, far from improving things, rather stands as a symptom of the dysfunction.
Strong views on the sources of contemporary American political dysfunction certainly exist, but just as certainly there is no consensus as to which view is correct—and one cannot readily remedy a problem unless one has first figured out what it is. This is obviously no easy task, or someone would have already done it.
Why has this task been so hard? There are several reasons, but a key one is that it’s not obvious what we need to know. We have a levels-of-analysis problem, and we need a Goldilocks Solution for it. Some fixes are too superficial: Just repair the campaign finance system, or persuade politicians to be less partisan and more civil and all will be well, some say. But they won’t, and the fact that we cannot achieve even these modest objectives points to something deeper having gone awry. We dare not dig too deep, on the other hand, lest we find our problems to be standing on the backs of other problems all the way down, as in the cosmological turtle myth. Since everything is caused by something else more foundational, and since causal arrows often point in many directions at once, it is hardly obvious that a deeper analysis, lying somewhere in the recesses of, say, culture, will best repay practically minded effort.
Not that deeper searches cannot be rewarding and suggestive. Plenty of real interest has been written, for example, about changes in the self-image and behavior of American elites; about changing values, like thrift, as a means to explain the profligacy of recent times; and about a media culture that has taken us in barely more than one generation from Father Knows Best to a primetime diet of murder, child molestation, madness and casual torture. When connected to real social history, the truths that emerge from such analyses are not flimsy. But they are not especially helpful truths because they can rarely be specific enough to...